What Does a 90-Point Wine Rating Mean?

What Does a 90-Point Wine Rating Mean?

What Does a 90-Point Wine Rating Mean?

You’ve seen them touted on store shelves, or maybe on social media or in a winery’s marketing campaign: “This wine was rated 90 Points by (Insert Wine Publication)!”  But what does it actually mean when a wine is scored 90 or higher?  The answer is simple, yet complicated.  In this post, we’ll delve into this subject a little deeper to gain an understanding of how you can interpret wine ratings and use them to buy wines you’ll love.

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How Does the Wine Rating System Work?

In a nutshell, the 100-point wine rating scale is a “grading” process that attempts to help consumers quantify and benchmark a wine’s quality against other wines.  Think of it like the grading system from when you were in school:  Anything from 90-100 is an A, anything from 80-89 is a B, and so on.  So, a wine that is rated 90 or higher is generally considered to be a superior or exceptional wine.  This is why wineries strive to achieve this accolade.  Simple enough, right?  Not exactly.

Who and What Determines a Wine’s Rating?

This is where it starts to get a little complicated.  There is no official governing body that issues wine ratings or sets forth criteria by which wine should be judged.  This has led to the meaning and efficacy of a wine’s rating being very subjective and sometimes debated.  Technically, anyone can issue a wine rating based on anything.  So, how do you know which ratings carry more weight and are more useful in determining a wine’s quality?

Wine ratings primarily come from three sources: 1. Professional Wine Critics; 2. Wine Competitions; and 3. Wine Bloggers.  Let’s examine each of these three a little more in depth.

Professional Wine Critics

Generally speaking, professional wine critics that review and write about wines for major wine publications produce the most useful and reliable ratings and are considered the gold standard for wine ratings.  Examples of such publications include nationally known magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, and Wine Spectator, as well as respected online critics such as Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Jeb Dunnuck, Antonio Galloni, and James Suckling.  The latter three all got their starts at one of the aforementioned larger publications.  Robert Parker is known for pioneering and popularizing the current 100-point rating scale starting in the 1980’s.  Some non-wine-specific publications such as The Wall Street Journal have well-known wine critics as well.

The reason these critics are trusted more than any other source is that they are educated and trained in wine tasting, and due to the sheer volume of wines they taste they have a good baseline with which to compare wines.  But most importantly, the biggest key to a quality wine rating is that it be done “blind”.  This means that the reviewer does not know the producer, the brand or the price of the wine while they are tasting.  The blind nature of these reviews keeps the wine rating neutral and independent with no influence from outside factors. Almost all of the major wine critics and publications use a blind system for reviews.

However, even with this structured process, wine ratings can be subject to a critic’s personal preferences or to what the critic considers to be the most important criteria for judging a wine. And each publication has its own definition of what constitutes each rating level.  In other words, what qualifies as an 89 in one publication could be considered a 92 in another.  So, while professional critics provide the most legitimate wine ratings, there are a lot of other factors to consider when using their ratings as a guide for buying wine.

Wine Competitions

Another source of wine ratings is wine competitions.  Competitions are exactly what they sound like- an event where wines are submitted for tasting, usually by a panel of judges, and rated by the judges to award either a numeric rating or a “medal” (gold, silver, bronze, etc.).  Gold medals (or double gold at some competitions) and 90+ ratings are considered to be the most prestigious ratings handed out during competitions.

Unlike professional wine critics, which are mostly held to rigorous standards and processes, the quality of competitions can vary greatly.  Competitions can be anything from international to your local county fair.  Processes for judging can also differ as there is no universal standard for who is qualified to be a judge, whether wines are tasted blind, and what the criteria for judging are.  Many competitions are “pay to play” meaning that wineries have to submit an entry fee in order for their wines to be reviewed.  In most cases, these fees are meant to simply cover the logistical costs of the event or the judging process. However, there are wine competitions that are profit motivated as well.

Some of the best known competitions such as the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Completion, Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and the Decanter World Wine Awards are more reliable than the results awarded at a competition at your local farm show.

Wine Bloggers

Finally, one more source of ratings is wine bloggers.  Wine bloggers can come from a variety of backgrounds.  Some are winemakers or have worked at a winery, others are sommeliers or have some type of professional wine education and training, while others are simply wine enthusiasts that love to share their thoughts about wine.  Again, there are no barriers to entry- anyone can create a blog and say whatever they want. 

The vast majority of wine bloggers don’t assign numeric ratings or medals to wines, but some do.  Wine blogs and vlogs usually focus more on an in depth review of a specific wine or category of wines as opposed to the bigger publications that provide quick snippets about many wines.  Reading wine blogs is arguably a better way to learn about wines than just going by ratings (see more about this in the next section).  And it definitely is the most fun way to learn as many wine bloggers break with the stodgy traditions of wine criticism and really show off their great personalities.

If you do see a point rating from a wine blogger, it is good to consider what their background or qualifications are as well as what process they are using to assign a rating.

How to Use Wine Ratings as a Consumer

So, what’s the bottom line on 90+ Wine Ratings?  High ratings from a reputable wine critic can absolutely be valuable and informative, but be careful about judging wines solely on that criteria.  Just because a wine didn’t score a 90 or higher doesn’t mean you won’t like it, and just because a wine does get a 90+ rating doesn’t mean you will like it. In fact, there are many more unrated wines than ones that have been rated. So, eliminating wines that don’t have a rating is going to leave you missing out on trying many great wines that you’ll like.

The best way to use 90+ ratings in your wine purchasing decisions is as a complementary piece of information or a tie breaker.  First and foremost, you should drink wines that you love regardless of rating.  If you don’t enjoy the wine you’re drinking then what’s the point?  Make sure to read the tasting notes of a wine to see if it sounds appealing to your taste preferences, and then if you’re having trouble deciding between two wines use the rating as a tiebreaker.  

In Conclusion

Any winery that receives a high rating from a respected publication should be proud and ecstatic about that achievement.  At Sunstone, we see our ten 90+ ratings in the past year as independent validation of the quality of our wine and the hard work and skill of our winemakers.  But more importantly, we hope our customers love the wines they drink whether they’re rated or not.  Cheers!